The songwriter, producer, and performer will earn a Master of Religion and Public Life degree
When Maggie Rogers took the stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in April to perform in front of tens of thousands of people, many of them likely did not know the performance was also part of her graduate school requirement.
Rogers, the Grammy-nominated songwriter, producer, and performer, will graduate this year from Harvard Divinity School with a Master of Religion and Public Life (MRPL) degree, a program designed for experienced professionals who wish to develop in-depth knowledge of the complex ways religion influences public life related to their career areas. She is one of 11 people who will be the first to complete the new program, which launched last year and requires a public presentation to earn the degree.
“I brought everything I was learning into the details of that performance, some of which people will never see. From the way I collaboratively worked to design the stage layout, the stage production, the set list, the clothing, the way we came off the stage, the way we rehearsed. At the end of the day—creativity and spirituality—it’s about the process. Every layer, all of it, at the end of the day, is about intention,” said Rogers, who views her artistic practice as a form of spiritual practice.
Intention has become a growing factor in Rogers’s life in recent years. In 2020, Rogers had just wrapped up months of touring and performing when the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the shutdown of not just music and performance venues, but many other gathering spaces. She relocated to the coast of Maine and spent time reflecting on music, her structure around music, and her responsibility to her audience. She then decided to enroll at the Divinity School.
“I wanted to create a structure that could last me a lifetime in a moment where I was dealing with an immense amount of burnout and friction between what I actually wanted to do and the box I felt my career had put me in,” said Rogers. “I found that in my career, even though my training in life is as a musician, I was constantly put in this sort of nontraditional ministerial position where I was being asked for moral and spiritual guidance even though that wasn’t the job I signed up to do.”
During her time at HDS, Rogers focused her work on the spirituality of public gatherings and the ethics of power in pop culture. She was curious, she said, about the relationship between artist and audience, and what that power structure and dynamic look like.
“I was thinking about this world in which people are moving further and further away from traditional religion, but yet are seeking to be connected to both something bigger than oneself and to each other,” said Rogers. A December 2021 report by the Pew Research Center found that 29 percent of U.S. adults identify as religiously unaffiliated, compared to 16 percent in 2007.
“A really palpable and obvious and potent way that we connect to each other is through culture, through social media, but it puts a lot of emphasis and power in the hands of people who are artists,” she said. “A lot of what I studied was how we come together, looking at religion and theology, and thinking largely about what are the ways in which we connect to each other, how is that done in a way that can be an agent for peace, what does it mean to hold that power, and what is the responsibility one has.”
Each year on the eve of Commencement, Harvard Divinity School holds its Multireligious Commencement Service at Memorial Church. Graduating students offer prayers, readings, and music drawn from the wide array of faiths and backgrounds represented within the School. During the service, Rogers offered a performance of "Over the Rainbow."
Her course work included “Spiritual Paths to Abstract Art,” “Modern Psychedelic Spiritualities In Historical Context,” “Buddhist Narrative and Story Literature,” and a writing workshop led by author, environmentalist, and HDS writer-in-residence Terry Tempest Williams. She said she “fell in love with writing” while taking the workshop because of its variation from songwriting and that she is excited to develop that practice.
Diane L. Moore, the faculty director for the Religion and Public Life program, said Rogers, along with all of the members of the inaugural MRPL cohort, have gained advanced knowledge about religion and are now well equipped to serve as leaders regarding the public understanding of religion and how it impacts their professions.
“Maggie possesses a wonderful combination of refreshing candor, astute perceptiveness, and the capacity for deep empathy. These gifts, coupled with her artistic brilliance and her synergies with wellsprings of joy, provided a fertile foundation for her explorations here at HDS into the spirituality of public gatherings and the ethics of power in pop culture. Her presence here this year enlivened us all,” said Moore.
Being a part of the MRPL cohort allowed the degree candidates to connect over their research, and the deep work of her colleagues inspired Rogers’s own scholarship. She said the conversations with her colleagues, as well as other HDS classmates, proved just as fruitful as her courses.
"The work of the HDS community requires deep emotional engagement. It looks to a rapidly changing world experiencing immense pain and suffering and injustice and asks how to best be an agent for peace," said Rogers. “I feel deeply indebted to my brilliant classmates. I’ve met so many people who have permanently changed the way that I see and think about the world, and who have pushed me in my own thinking in ways that were both comfortable and uncomfortable. I want to be in school forever. There's so much to learn about the world and so much I feel like I'm just waking up to."
Rogers’s latest album, Surrender, will be released on July 29. She finished mixing, mastering, and recording the album, in addition to filming three music videos, while working toward her degree.
“Whatever I was learning in class would immediately get put into practice in my professional world,” she said. “It felt really integrated. The MRPL enhanced my work and vice versa. Now I’m going to spend the next year putting out this record and performing and living out so much of what I've been thinking about. I feel like I’ve just barely started to scratch the surface of what I’ve been studying here.”
—by Michael Naughton